Q&A: Radiculopathy with Dr. Lauren Ostling

Q: What is radiculopathy?

A: Radiculopathy describes radiating symptoms such as pain or tingling resulting from damage to nerves as they exit the spinal cord. Different conditions can cause radiculopathy, but these symptoms all move out from the spinal cord, often extending from the spine into the arms and legs.

Q & A: Radiculopathy

Q: How do I know if I have radiculopathy?

A: If your symptoms radiate – moving from one place to another or worsening in waves before subsiding – you could be experiencing radiculopathy. These radiating symptoms can take several forms. You could experience pain or numbness that extends down your arms or legs. You could feel a tingling – like "pins and needles." In a severe case, you might see weakened muscles in the areas where the nerve pain is traveling. If you experience any of these symptoms, you probably should consult with your doctor.

Q: What causes radiculopathy?

A: Different root conditions can cause radiculopathy – including a herniated disc or bone spurs. Each of these conditions impinges the nerves, producing the symptoms of radiculopathy.

Q: Is radiculopathy the same as a pinched nerve?

A: The pinched nerve can cause radiculopathy. If the nerve is in the cervical region, or upper spine, the pain or numbness might travel down a patient's arm. If the affected nerve is in the lumbar region, or lower spine, the patient might notice tingling or weakness down one or both legs.

Q: How can radiculopathy be treated?

A: Patients displaying symptoms that radiate away from their spinal cord should definitely consult a doctor. Conservative treatment can include everything from rest and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication to physical therapy treatments or pain injections. In some patients, these nonsurgical treatments can calm the symptoms and allow the underlying disorder to heal itself. If the radiating pain, weakness or numbness persist or worsen, it probably is necessary to see your physician. Surgery is an option for those patients where the symptoms increase and the root cause results in significant impingement on the nerve.

Q: What's the difference between radiculopathy and myelopathy – Could someone have both?

A: While the symptoms can mirror each other, radiculopathy and myelopathy are distinct conditions with different surgical or nonsurgical treatment options. The symptoms that distinguish radiculopathy come from nerve impingement as the nerves exit the spinal column, while myelopathy generally refers to the compression of the spinal cord. In severe cases, patients can experience both at one time. This could indicate more global spinal challenges that might require surgical intervention.

Q: Sometimes I feel pain and heaviness in my legs that make it difficult to walk. Is this a symptom of radiculopathy?

A: If your symptoms are extending into your legs or arms, you should see your doctor for advanced imaging that will allow for an accurate diagnosis. It could be that you are suffering from what's known as neurogenic claudication, or a set of symptoms resulting from nerve compression in the lumbar region, the lower spine. In this case, it might be spinal stenosis, or a narrowing of the spinal canal where the nerves pass.

The information in this Q&A is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, nor is it intended to serve as medical diagnosis or treatment. The information is presented for the sole purpose of disseminating health information. It is not intended and must not be taken to be the provision or practice of medical, nursing, or professional health care advice or services in any jurisdiction. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider if you have questions regarding a medical condition, and always seek the advice of your physician or provider before starting any new treatment. The information about drugs contained in this Q&A is general in nature and is intended for use as an educational aid. It does not cover all possible uses, actions, precautions, side effects, or interactions of these medicines. As such, the information is not intended to serve as medical advice for individual problems or for making an evaluation as to the risks and benefits of taking a particular drug.